Moral Courage, Divisions Between People, and Self-Awareness

Since 22 August, which kicked off the DC part of my US travels, I’ve been having a lot of comparative discussions about the UK and the US. They began with a brown bag talk I gave at The Praxis Project and carried on into coffees with researchers and conversations with Londoners who are now living Stateside. In fact, they carried on in Staunton, Virginia where I stayed with a couple who just moved here from London. They included a lunch with the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Studies. A lot of these conversations keep bringing me back to the topics of moral courage, divisions between people, and self-awareness.

I was not in London – in my Bethnal Green neighborhood (in the US, and doing US spelling) – when the riots happened. Thus, I write what follows fully aware that many people will think I am on very shaky ground and want to respond with ‘You weren’t here – that’s all easy for you to say, but you weren’t here.’ And, in fact, people I said this to over here did say that. Yet, those same people also suggested that my observation wasn’t without merit. With all this in mind, here’s what I’m thinking…

The Turkish and Kurdish shop owners in Dalston, Hackney are now famous for their collective stand against the looters. They stood in front of their shops, some with brooms and rocks in hands, ready to defend their livelihoods. I read that in Whitechapel and Bethnal Green damages were limited because the local Muslim communities (of Bengali and Somali backgrounds)  – like their Dalston counterparts – also stood ground.  Immigrant communities (I won’t get into the problems with articles like that of Cristina Odone’s Telegraph piece, Immigrants love this country more than we do) have been hailed for their sense of responsible community not just in relation to self-preservation, but as a demonstration of commitment to Great Britain. 

Putting aside discussion on patriotism, I thought/think “Well, good on ya” when it comes to people who stood up against the violence (let’s also put aside that some people perhaps were ready to fight violence with violence). But I’ve been wondering (as I guess Odone was, too, but coming from a different angle): Where was everyone else?

I did see in the media that occasionally a brave passer-by to the riots stopped to try and persuade looters of their madness. Again, good on ya – especially since as a lone individual that was a risky act. And, yes, I know that in places like Hackney pro-social tweeting, e.g., #riotscleanup, led to hundreds of people coming out with their brooms. They also organized a street party one Saturday to show solidary and support local businesses. Initially, I was really excited by that – and I still think it is great. 

But I’m wondering: what if all the people who turned up to clean up and to celebrate their neighborhood, had turned up on the same street (heavily hit by the riots) in hundreds in defiance of the violence? What if hundreds had stood in solidarity with the Dalston shop owners? One person suggested to me that the ‘immigrant’ communities had the advantage of having the community infrastructure to mobilize and support each other. He suggested that other people, e.g. progressive middle class types, lacked this. To which my response was – that’s not true, people got it together to do clean up the next day and to organize a street party.

And here’s what I haven’t mentioned yet – my sense is that those involved in East End cleanup were predominantly the educated, middle class folks – people like myself and many of my friends (see, for example, Matthew Brown’s article).  

People were breaking shop windows and setting cars alight – people did die during the riots (sympathies to their families). So it is right to say to me ‘You weren’t there and it was dangerous.’ Yet, wouldn’t it have been less dangerous if the number of people standing in defiance were significantly higher? And also, isn’t that – at the end of the day – what moral courage entails: risk-taking? 

It is no light decision to put one’s self in harms way. If I look in the mirror and wonder what would have I done in that situation, I know what I would like to think I would do – but I cannot honestly say for certain that my ideal would have translated into practice.  Yet, I do not think this moots my query: Why didn’t we see more moral courage during the riots – more people putting up a non-violent stance against the violence and destruction?

To note: I do remember reading somewhere that some people wanting to take a stand felt it was hard to know what to do in terms of relating to the police. I guess the police were probably trying to clear areas and encouraging people to stay away. Thus, it might have felt as though the police were a barrier to creating any counter-demonstration to the rioting. This raises questions about the relationship between civil society and the police – and the challenges of managing that relationship during civil unrest, particularly when peaceful demonstrations against the State transform into violence. Under such circumstances, peaceful demonstrators might feel uncomfortable allying themselves with the police, and vis-versa. 

But I want to go back to this idea of moral courage. Because thinking about who did what during the rioting, has got me thinking about what we all do on a day-to-day basis when it comes to standing up for others. And, in fact, I wonder how many of us really believe that standing up for others is really the same as standing up for our selves – a harm to another person, is a harm done to me. I wonder this, because I feel that we – progressive people wanting greater equality and justice – can often be complicit in our movement. And, yes, I include myself in this – what beliefs do I have and choices do I make that reinforce inequitable and destructive cultures, systems and structures? How is my passivity contributing to the injustices that surround me? How can I be more morally courageous? When does it make the most sense? How do I balance that fine line between courage and foolishness that I suspect exists?

And all this brings me back to the US. Because our President is getting a lot of criticism – including from his own party. In the conversations I’ve been having about the riots in Britain, we’ve also talked about this. And a few of us are thinking the same thing: the progessive left in the US has let the President down. After he was elected we did not sustain the momentum to do on the ground what we wanted him to do in office – change and strengthen our democratic culture. I’ve been wondering, for example, why more people weren’t out on the streets in protest of the inane Congressional deliberations over the national budget/deficit. Instead, many Americans watched coverage on the television and became hugely frustrated about it all – but we did not really do much, did we? I’m not even talking about having moral courage here – I’m talking about switching from passive to active. What could we have done? Well, that’s another subject to consider.

I’m in Chicago now, and in one of the last discussions I had on these topics, I was told about how activists here have become really interested in UK Uncut. They want to create a similar movement here and have been in contact with UK Uncut to learn more about how the US can create a movement to challenge the banking industry.  I think that’s great – I’m all for a bridging of activist communities across the Atlantic and love what UK Uncut has been doing.

But when I think of UK Uncut, I think of a story I wrote about previously – which feels like it brings me full circle with this post. Kurdish and Turkish shop owners in a mixed-income area stood with their brooms ready to defend their livelihoods. Thinking particularly about the East End, it feels like we need to do more to build bridges between people like the local shop owners and the types of people who came out with brooms post-rioting and/or who are likely to be connected into the UK Uncut world (I suspect they are one and the same).  I think growing these connections, building these bridges involves greater reflection and self-awareness about our movement. How do we relate to one another? What does our ethical commitment to each other look like on a day-to-day basis? What are we doing to see each our selves and one another more clearly? How do we support one another? 

Maybe my friend was/is right – maybe our (middle class progressives) social networking is very limited – our bonds and social capital are weak, particularly when it comes to extending our ethical commitment beyond our social and economic circles.  Which is why, maybe, moving forward we might want to do some inward focusing to strengthen our outward activities. As one friend back in London once asked at a dinner party I hosted: “Why is it that we only ever talk about poor people having to grow community?” 


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